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Topic of Workshop

In this workshop, we seek to address two deeply ingrained aspects of current Science and Technology Studies: the focus on material technology, and the idea that all technology is social. Devices, machines, artifacts take central place in STS, in keeping with the common sense meaning of the word ‘technology’. Combined with STS’s traditional focus on natural science and medicine, this has resulted in a relative neglect of technologies that stem from the social sciences, in which material devices are less prominent. Moreover, through the influence of actor-network theory in particular, the idea has taken root that material technology forms the glue of our society (the ‘missing masses’), as well as being its main source of change. Material technology is considered to be at the heart of society, and the dichotomy of the social and the technological is rejected: all technology is social, and society is technological through and through.

We wish first of all to redress the imbalance inherent in the material view of technology. The social sciences produce great numbers of graduates each year, skilled in technologies that are to a large extent intangible: psychotherapy, focus groups, various types of interview, techniques of human resource management, and many others. Such practices have of course been the subject of historical and sociological study, often from a Foucauldian perspective. However, applying the conceptual resources of STS may bring into better view the socio-material construction processes involved in practical social science, its particular affordances and trade-offs, and embeddedness in technoscientific networks.

Secondly, we want to problematize the popular ‘dissolution of the social’: the widely accepted proposition that the category of ‘the social’ is at best increasingly irrelevant, and at worst a fundamental mistake. Rethinking old dichotomies such as that of nature and culture, or the material and the social, has been of tremendous importance in reflecting on our current ways of living. However, the fact that it is no longer acceptable as a theoretical resource, does not make the social any less interesting as an empirical phenomenon. The distinctiveness of people and their interactions is still invoked, produced, repressed, and utilized in many technological assemblages, not only those stemming from the social sciences.

We propose the term ’social technology’ to cover these issues, and intend to bring together a number of scholars from Science and Technology Studies and the Social Sciences to discuss them.

The workshop will be the occasion to address the following questions, through theoretical and conceptual reflections and empirically-oriented contributions: What is the current scope of technology studies and to what extent can it embrace social technologies? Which social technologies are especially prominent in contemporary culture, and how can we study these? Does a reframing of ‘technology’ enable STS to better explore the workings of social science and humanities? How can the term social technology allow a study of human qualities, without assuming a priori a human essence?

Papers compare the role of predominantly material technologies in building and stabilizing ‘collectives’ with the role of social technologies are also welcome, while other papers address social technologies as (1) technologies from the social sciences, (2) technologies that consist entirely or predominantly of human action (polling, rhetoric, and psychotherapy are examples of social technology in this sense) or (3) technologies for the creation and maintenance of groups.

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